Incidental extras

Frederic Edwin Church’s 1865 painting “Aurora Borealis”: Wikipedia Commons

“Everything has a meaning, if only we could read it.”
— ‘Lyra and the Birds’

The recently published short story The Collectors by Philip Pullman was a moderately satisfying stopgap while we awaited the final volume of his The Book of Dust, which is anticipated as the completion of the saga of Lyra Silvertongue and her dæmon Pantalaimon.

Following on from the His Dark Materials trilogy The Book of Dust has been extending the long journey that began in 1995 with Northern Lights (titled The Golden Compass in North America in case the UK title was assumed to indicate a nonfiction book, but erroneous in that the alethiometer is neither golden nor indeed a compass).

But Pullman has been filling in some of the gaps with what I consider as incidental extras, giving us bits of history to enlarge the background to places and personages in Lyra’s world, feeding us tantalising tidbits to assuage our literary cravings.

Lyra’s Oxford, from the book of the same name

In Lyra’s Oxford (2003) Pullman included some fascinating extras: a map of the Oxford in Lyra’s world produced by Smith & Strange at Globetrotter House in Beaumont Street; a postcard from former nun Dr Mary Malone to her friend Angela after just moving to Oxford; a two-page extract from a guidebook to Oxford which mentions Queen Zenobia in passing; and part of a leaflet advertising a cruise by the SS Zenobia to the Levant.

It’s extraordinary that the 2003 novelette’s Zenobia references will only be taken up fully in The Secret Commonwealth thirteen years later. This speaks highly of Pullman’s skill in orchestrating his grand design: extracts from documents which, at first reading, make no coherent sense at the time of publication, retrospectively take on the significance intended. In this way Pullman is almost like the figure of Urizen (in William Blake’s illustration The Ancient of Days) measuring the earth with his golden compass dividers, planning its dimensions.

Urizen, by William Blake, with his golden compass dividers

In 2008 Pullman did the same for Once Upon a Time in the North when the extras included letters written by Lyra in preparation for an MPhil in Economic History at St Sophia’s College. The dissertation’s unwieldy title is ‘Developments in patterns of trade in the European Arctic region with particular reference to independent cargo balloon carriage (1950-1970)‘ which tells us at least two things: Lyra’s future career direction, and that the incident described in the 2008 novelette with Lee Scoresby and Iorek Byrnison occurs at least 30 years before the first trilogy’s narrative. Like Lyra’s Oxford this novelette was graced with illustrations by John Lawrence.

With the second trilogy, The Book of Dust, we started to discern more connections in the author’s vast design. The publication of a further novelette — Serpentine — in October 2020 provided a further incident for dedicated fans to pore over, apparently linking back to Lyra’s dissertation subject with its Arctic setting. There were however no documentary extras in this slim volume, though we now had Tom Duxbury’s illustrations to enjoy.

Duxbury also Illustrated The Collectors, with a cover design featuring a painting by Balthus, and even if this had no additional material we were teased with glimpses of Lyra’s mother Marisa in her teens. More teasing came with  The Imagination Chamber: cosmic rays from Lyra’s universe (2022), scraps retrieved from different stages in the writing of Lyra’s saga over many years.

© C A Lovegrove

The chronological sequence of all related publications so far, excluding the as yet unnamed third volume of The Book of Dust (TBD), is as follows (links are to my reviews):

The Collectors (2014, published 2022)
Once Upon a Time in the North (2008)
La Belle Sauvage (2018) TBD
Northern Lights (1995) HDM
The Subtle Knife (1997) HDM
The Amber Spyglass (2000) HDM
Lyra’s Oxford (2003)
Serpentine (2004, published 2020)
The Secret Commonwealth (2019) TBD

More than a quarter of a century on from the appearance of Northern Lights it’s evident that however much tweaking may have happened over this period Pullman had a rough blueprint which he has pretty much stuck to. I’m sure sticklers for details will be well aware of any inconsistencies but I remain in awe of his consistent vision for Lyra and her world, its denizens and its dæmons. These trilogies and their incidental extras have been one classy project, aided by the addition of illustrations by several talented artists (including the author himself).

Followers of this blog will have been aware that I’ve included several supplementary posts to my reviews, and need no warning that I’m likely to continue doing so for any further titles that may appear.¹ But the speculations contained in those posts should not be taken as gospel truth; and it’s as well to heed the warnings of Pullman himself as regards the ‘meanings’ of anything in his work.

As a passionate believer in the democracy of reading, I don’t think it’s the task of the author of a book to tell the reader what it means.

The meaning of a story emerges in the meeting between the words on the page and the thoughts in the reader’s mind. So when people ask me what I meant by this story, or what was the message I was trying to convey in that one, I have to explain that I’m not going to explain.

Anyway, I’m not in the message business; I’m in the “Once upon a time” business.

Author website

¹ This thread indicates some of his progress on Volume 3 of The Book of Dust:

Central Asia, from a 1930s atlas

As Series 3 of the BBC/HBO adaptation of His Dark Materials comes to an end here – adapted, revised, updated and recast – is a post I wrote in summer 2020, in the hopes of finally seeing Volume 3 of The Book of Dust in 2023

Stupas on walls of Erdene Zuu Monastery, Karakhorim, Mongolia (image: Bouette, Creative Commons)

22 thoughts on “Incidental extras

  1. Shockingly, I’ve not read either of the novelettes yet – despite owning copies for ages and getting Pullman to sign them! I have the ‘new’ one on order. I think I ought to remedy this too, and then get on with The Secret Commonwealth.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I got the first hb editions of the novelettes (for which I’m grateful as the pbs are poor cousins in most respects) but unsigned, sadly! I’m enjoying The Secret Commonwealth so far though I’ve seen a lot of disappointed reviewers bemoaning there’s more chat and less magical action than in HDM — but I’m more interested in the human aspect that Pullman focuses on here than in mere novelty.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Apart from anything else it’s impressive that he has maintained his grand design over twenty-five years, but I’ve been enjoying revisiting the original trilogy in rapid succession with the ‘prequel’ and the novelettes.


  2. I am loving this study! I’ve not tucked into the second trilogy yet–I have a feeling it will be the way I survive the coming winter. You’ve struck one of the major reasons I admire Pullman’s work so much–the depth and breadth of his story-world. As you say, he has a grand design at play, which means all that lives and occurs has purpose and drive for that design. As a reader, you know you will not be drudging through minutiae, which is always my dread when I encounter a new fantasy.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, all that minutiae is somehow relevant, not fillers shoved in just because he’d invented them but because they’re crucial to character development or because they’ll be reintroduced at the appropriate moment, I so agree, Jean.

      I’m well into the Commonwealth instalment now (my review for The Amber Spyglass scheduled for tomorrow) and am already seeing links with all the preceding publications — it’s quite thrilling, even awesome!

      Liked by 1 person

    1. He often comes across as aloof and a bit assertive in his statements but there’s no doubting that his imagination is boundless and that he has a gift for storytelling. His collection of literary essays, Dæmon Voices, has lots of insightful nuggets; though I’ve only scratched the surface so far I think you’d find it worth investigating!


Do leave a comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.